UNITED NATIONS—Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a top associate of Osama bin Laden that is developing chemical weapons and behind many terrorist operations in the Middle East and Europe.
Powell's assertion, backed by what U.S. officials insist is ironclad evidence, provides the most detailed link between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network made public to date by any Bush administration official.
Powell's detailed description of contacts between the two, complete with charts and photos, was the biggest surprise of his presentation on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council.
Saddam's regime and terrorist networks form a "sinister nexus," the secretary of state said, although he was careful not to allege that Iraq and al-Qaida carry out joint terrorist operations or that Baghdad had a role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
That reflects continued hot debate at the top of the U.S. government over the extent of Iraq's connection to al-Qaida.
But Powell, with CIA chief George Tenet seated behind him, said that Baghdad had given sanctuary to a network headed by bin Laden associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, an expert in poisons who was wounded in the U.S. assault on Afghanistan and went to Baghdad for medical treatment.
Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, has been linked to another terrorist cell broken up by British authorities last month that was apparently planning an attack with the deadly poison ricin. He also has been implicated in the murder in Amman, Jordan, last October of Lawrence Foley, an employee of U.S. Agency for International Development.
Powell also said that:
_The Zarqawi network has established a training camp for poisons and explosives in northeastern Iraq, in an area controlled by a radical Islamic group known as Ansar al-Islam. The group operates in Kurdish territories that are outside Saddam's direct control.
The CIA believes Zarqawi may still be in northern Iraq, said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity.
_During the two months that Zarqawi spent in Baghdad beginning in May 2002, nearly two dozen extremists converged on the Iraqi capital. They "now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they have now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months," Powell said.
U.S. intelligence officials said intercepted e-mails revealed that Zarqawi in Baghdad had maintained contact with the alleged terrorist cell in Great Britain believed to be planning to an attack with ricin.
_According to a top al-Qaida lieutenant, now in U.S. custody, bin Laden sent militants, including one named Abdullah al-Araqi, to Iraq between 1997 and 2000 for help with chemical and biological weapons training. "Abdullah al-Araqi characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful," Powell said, quoting U.S. intelligence reports.
Other U.S. officials identified the top al-Qaida lieutenant mentioned by Powell as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
Most of Powell's case on Iraq's links to terrorism is based on interrogation of captured terrorists such as al-Libi and accounts from foreign intelligence services. It did not contain the telephone intercepts and extensive spy satellite images he deployed to show how Iraq is deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors.
_Baghdad has an agent in the top levels of the Ansar organization who offered safe haven in northeastern Iraq to al-Qaida members. After the organization was routed from Afghanistan in late 2001, some members of al-Qaida accepted the offer.
Powell was extremely careful not to stretch the evidence of Iraq's collusion with al-Qaida beyond what U.S. intelligence agencies knew for certain, several U.S. officials said. He insisted that his presentation include only evidence on which there was unanimous agreement in the intelligence community and that already had been presented to allied intelligence services.
Powell was careful "to make sure the claims we made were solid ones," said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We talked about links to al-Qaida. We talked about safe haven. We talked about harboring."
"We're not at this point saying we have information that would lead one to believe Iraq was involved in 9-11 or exercising operational control" over al-Qaida cells, the senior official said.
Saddam, in a television interview with a retired British politician aired this week, denied any links to al-Qaida.
Powell disclosed that another intelligence service-identified by other officials as Jordan's-contacted Baghdad at U.S. request and twice asked Iraq to extradite Zarqawi and his associates. The request was refused.
The U.S. presentation on Zarqawi was clearly aimed at reminding countries such as France and Russia, who have deep reservations about a war on Iraq, of the threat they face.
Powell recounted how an unnamed detainee provided information on European targets and the names of some members of the network. "Three of those he identified by name were arrested in France last December," Powell said. "In the apartments of the terrorists, authorities found circuits for explosive devices and a list of ingredients to make toxins."
Members of the Zarqawi network also have been active in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and in the Chechnya region of Russia, Powell said, as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov listened. "Members of Zarqawi's network say their goal was to kill Russians with toxins."
Ties between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida have been one of the most contentious issues within Bush's national security team over the last year and a half.
CIA, State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency officials initially were skeptical of charges by administration hardliners that secular Iraq has been forging closer ties to the militantly Islamic al-Qaida.
But under pressure from Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the intelligence agencies intensified their search for links between Baghdad and bin Laden, aided by debriefings of captured al-Qaida leaders, including al-Libi and Ramzi Binalshibh.
Zarqawi began to emerge as a bigger player, especially in al-Qaida's European and North African operations, intelligence officials said, apparently filling a vacuum left by the death in Afghanistan of top operations official Muhammed Atef and the capture of other senior al-Qaida leaders.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030204 IRAQ ALQAIDA